The Office of Open Records Counsel has set public hearings for Sept. 15-17 in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson to gather input on whether citizens should have to pay local and state government to inspect public records.
The hearings on public records fees are being conducted after the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Press Association opposed bills in the last legislative session that would allow for the first time local governments and state agencies to charge labor fees to provide public records for citizen inspection.
Currently, Tennessee law allows citizens free access to inspect public records, but allows charges if the citizen wants copies. TCOG, TPA and other citizen groups opposed the proposed legislation because of concerns that new fees would be used to block access to public records that provide government accountability, and be abused in the same way copy fees have been abused. Journalists and even a college student have been charged more than $1,000 when they requested public records for things such as spending expenses. (A few years ago, the Department of Children’s Services tried to charge media organizations more than $55,000 for records dealing with child deaths, which included mileage and labor to drive the records to Nashville from far corners of the state.)
The bills to allow additional public records fees were sponsored by state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, at the request of the Tennessee Association of School Boards.
Open Records Counsel Ann Butterworth set the hearings and finalized her surveys after a meeting with the Advisory Committee on Open Government.
The public hearings will be:
Knoxville – 4-6 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 12 Oaks Executive Park, 5401 Kingston Pike, Building 2, Suite 350
Nashville – 10-noon, Wednesday, Sept. 16, James K. Polk State Office Building, 505 Deaderick St., 16th Floor, Video Conference Center
Jackson – 3-5 p.m. Lowell Thomas State Office Building, 225 Martin Luther King Drive, Tower B, Conference Room 1.
According to a press release from Open Records Counsel Ann Butterworth, the hearings will be limited to the following questions:
- Should the TPRA (Tennessee Public Records Act) permit record custodians to charge for inspection of public records?
- If charges for inspection are permitted, should charges for inspection be governed in a manner similar to charges for duplication (Schedule of Reasonable Charges)? If not, why not?
- If charges for inspection are permitted, should any public records such as meeting minutes, agendas, and audit reports be exempted from inspection charges? Why?
- If charges for inspection are permitted, should the factors listed in Tenn. Code Ann. Section 8-4-604 related to charges for copies be considered for inspection? If not, why not?
- What amendments or changes should be made to the current Schedule for Reasonable Charges related to duplication of records? Why?
Can’t attend a hearing? Submit comments by email
If you cannot attend one of the three public hearings, citizens and journalists are encouraged to email written comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org email address.
Also, Butterworth asked speakers to sign up in advance for the two-hour hearings (See Guidelines for Public Hearings). Each speaker will be given three to five minutes, depending on turnout, and will be allowed to speak in the order in which they signed up in advance to speak.
The office also has developed two surveys – one for citizens and journalists who submit public records requests and one for government officials – to gather data on the number of records requests, the response time and other issues.